On my first day at university, as I cautiously poked my head out of my room in halls and tip-toed into the communal area, I heard the sound of raucous laughter. The laugh was somehow deep and slightly guttural, yet giggly at the same time. It was impossible not to smile when you heard it. I followed the sound of the laughter and ended up standing in the doorway of a room belonging to another fresher. She was sitting on her bed, cross-legged. She had the shiniest hair I’d ever seen, glasses and a smile that seemed to fill space beyond her face. She was deep in conversation with a third year and evidently what he was saying was really funny.
That was how I met Karen, who is now one of my best friends. Karen was not only a year younger than the rest of us (she is from Ireland) but, I later discovered, there was a brief period of time before she came to uni whern she couldn’t decide if she wanted to study physics or English. For that reason I have since thought of Karen as probably the cleverest person I know.
Karen eventually settled on the sciences, and one day she was discussing her course with me and how a lot of it involved "unlearning". As an English grad, I have never really had to "unlearn". For my GSCEs, for example, I studied Romeo and Juliet. I was told that it was a story about two teenagers who fell in love in spite of their family’s disapproval. My exam involved describing the motivations of some of the characters and using examples of dialogue to back up my arguments.
At A level, I learned a little more about the over-arching themes in Shakespeare’s work and how some of it was a thinly-veiled dig at prominent political figures of the day. I also learned about Jonson and Marlowe and how the playwrights at the time frequently "borrowed" from one another.
By the time I got to degree level, the texts I studied were just a small part of my learning. I was deep in historical, political and religious context and a big part of my work involved studying writers who had either been influenced by, or critical of, Shakespeare.
But here’s the thing… Even though the depth of my knowledge evolved over time, Romeo and Juliet remains a play about two teenagers who fell in love despite their family’s disapproval. That was never in dispute.
Physics, Karen told me, was an entirely different matter. At A level you are told you must forget everything you learned at GCSE, because the theory you are now being introduced to would have been too complicated for you to understand back then. Now you have to try and wrap your head around a new theory.
Karen eventually went on to do a Masters (see, clever) and apparently this motif keeps repeating itself in science education. It’s a kind of Etch a Sketch approach to learning – you have to shake your brain clear of everything you thought you knew. Which, I’ll be honest, sounds like a nightmare.
Why am I telling you this? Well, it strikes me that we are adopting the Etch a Sketch method when it comes to wellbeing. And the worst part of it all is, not only are we asking children to "unlearn" what they think they know about mental health, self-esteem and body image, we’re also never actively teaching them anything in the first place. We’re letting our neoliberal, individualistic, consumerist capitalist, politically dubious society teach our children and then attempting to undo the damage it causes.
Our sense of identity and, therefore, our mental health is tied up in notions of what it means to be a man, a woman, successful and attractive. In a lot of instances, we allow children to reach their own conclusions on these things, based on what they see and hear in the world.
Yet the world doesn’t have a positive agenda when it comes to children’s self-esteem. In fact, the values by which our society lives are almost exclusively tied up with the making of money and it’s well known that the more insecure a person is the more they feel they need to spend and consume.
Children exposed to 'toxic narratives'
In a crucial stage of their cognitive development, one which can never truly be undone, children’s brains are exposed to toxic narratives which tell them that girls are princesses who must wait for a bloke to take them on an adventure, boys are action heroes who must never cry or have feelings, success means working yourself ragged to earn the biggest sums of money possible and being attractive involves looking like Kim Kardashian or Tarzan.
The education system teaches them that intelligence and being able to memorise and regurgitate a fairly arbitrary set of facts are one and the same. They learn that if being able to access these facts under exam conditions doesn’t fall within their skill set then they are stupid, expendable and do not deserve happiness.
So it’s little wonder that by the time they reach secondary school many children are exhibiting symptoms of emotional distress as they struggle to meet the standards of a culture which demands more and more of them but ultimately doesn’t care.
When children experience mental, emotional and behavioural issues, we ask that they "unlearn", that they take on a new set of values based around health and happiness, that they realise failure is, in fact, a crucial part of success and that showing vulnerability can be a sign of strength.
Some listen. For others, the values that have been internalised to date are too potent to allow for change. Those children will turn into adults who go through their lives always wanting, always measuring themselves against others, thinking life is about competition rather than collaboration and wondering why they never feel content.
The wellbeing of children isn’t just the responsibility of teachers, or indeed parents. It is everyone’s. There was a time when I had reconciled myself to the idea that the world is a tough place and we had to adapt to deal with it. But I have unlearned that.
I will not apologise for believing that society should put at its heart the needs and wellbeing of children.
If that were the case, children’s understanding of themselves could evolve and grow in the same way my understanding of literature did. And anyone who tells me that’s unrealistic, idealistic nonsense needs to unlearn a few things, too.
Natasha Devon is the former government mental health champion for schools and founder of the Body Gossip Education Programme and the Self-Esteem Team. She tweets as @NatashaDevonMBE